(Continued from previous)
The fallen tree trunks lie profusely along this stretch of the coast, mummified and decaying slowly, like dead Prime Ministers. It is bleak and wintery and it is April and cold. It feels strangely counter-intuitive to be on a beach in a snow storm, but here we are, rounding a corner of the estuary into Holbrook Bay where we pass onto a broad expanse of sand, and look over toward Wrabness on the Essex side of the water.
We are approaching the grandiose facade of the Royal Hospital school at Holbrook, which, when viewed from the other side of the river, seems it might aspire to draw the entire estuary into some gargantuan imperial remit. Ebb Tide used to be a teacher and I ask him how the large pointy turret in the middle of the building might enhance a young person’s education. He is not sure.
Sure enough though, the mathematician Bernard de Neumann apparently claimed that ‘’Just as…the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it may justifiably be claimed that the establishment of…the British Empire was charted and plotted in the classrooms of the Royal Hospital School.’’ This seems to be a claim of a grandiosity to match the building itself, and it should be noted that Professor de Neumann was not only a former pupil of the school but also a long-term employee of the Ministry of Defence, which will have coloured his judgement. Empires of course, have centres and outlying parts, and the people of the centre need big buildings to remind them of their superiority over those who inhabit the fringes. I would be interested to know exactly how much plotting and charting underpinned the establishment of the British Empire, and wonder if there are any former pupils of the school who might be forthcoming with information. My friend and neighbour, Bullet Ted, has a son at the school, and he tells me that the curriculum demands a lot of marching and drilling,- apparently called ‘divisions’ – and that the pupils only get one Sunday off a fortnight. At that workrate, I would have thought that the British Empire should still be a going concern. All the more surprising then, to read the ‘Headmaster’s Vision’ on the school website, to discover that he leads off with ‘the great Chartist slogan ‘ proclaiming ‘’education is a liberating force’’. Equally surprising is that one of the school’s houses is named after Robert Blake, who, during the course of the civil war and the protectorate emerged as a republican ‘General at Sea’ (The term ‘Admiral’ was not used by the parliamentarian navy) and who began his career as a captain in the New Model Army. The school was originally in Greenwich and has only been on its current site since 1933. It was designed by Herbert Tudor Buckland, an architect noted for his ‘art and craft’ influence, a school rooted originally in the socialism of William Morris. I wonder if a socialist republican movement is being plotted and charted surreptitiously, but that might just be the optimist in me. Jonathan Meades would surely have an opinion on this paradoxical mix of republicanism and imperial reference, and the dialogue between architecture and social engineering.
Looking at the map, this coast is littered with Halls. Beaumont Hall, Nether Hall, Crowe Hall, Stutton Hall. Not that these impact upon us as, for the most part , we are keeping to the beach and the edges of ploughed fields. The path heads inland shortly after the school passing through a neat farmyard with a picturesquely unmuddy tractor and Aylesbury ducks, just like in a story book for children.
My mind is irresistibly drawn back to the hotchpotch smallholdings at Barling and Great Wakering on the Southend backwaters and whilst comparison is not the name of the game, I know which I would prefer in the unlikely event I had to make a desert island choice of smallholding options.
The path leads to Stutton church, the wind howls like a hammer, we shelter in the lee of the porch and lunch on poor quality scotch eggs (Walls) and cold coffee. We pass a sign on a gate which might have been an inspiration to Bob Dylan, had he been on the Stour estuary in the early 70s.
We take an extended diversion around Stutton Hall, which is a very large and clearly demarcated estate, ringed with new ‘private property’ signs, before returning to the river at Stutton Mill. It looks as if there has been an attempt to realign the footpath here, for it does not follow the line on the map (although, admittedly, I have have owned this particular map since 1978 – it still flaps perfectly however). I suspect subterfuge on the part of the ‘property owner’, for unofficial signs direct us back towards Stutton, and there is no indication of the right of way through the garden of the mill. Always be suspicious where you see neatly-mown sea wall, tennis courts and black swans in the garden.
A row of pylons ahead indicates the line of the mainline London/Norwich railway, which we cross via a narrow footbridge, having passed through a deforested plantation. We are now in the congenial surroundings of the industrial estate, that seems to make the greater part of Catterwade and able to savour, somewhat queasily, the ambience of derelict manufacture.